Customizing SharePoint with third-party applications and Web Parts

As third-party SharePoint products proliferate, learn about the different types of SharePoint add-ons and how to help clients customize their SharePoint environment.

Solution provider takeaway: Advise your clients on how to choose among the proliferation of third-party products...

available for customizing SharePoint.

As a powerful tool with document management capabilities and workflows that automate manual processes, Windows SharePoint Services has become the platform that many companies turn to as a solution for changing business needs. SharePoint also provides a foundation for building Web-based business applications that can easily scale to meet business growth. As a result, there are a plethora of third-party suppliers of custom SharePoint products.

In some cases, these third-party applications and add-ons add flexibility or more functionality to the basic feature set offered by SharePoint, and in others they enable powerful administrative capabilities and allow integration with critical business applications and databases. The number of third-party SharePoint applications and custom Web Parts -- or reusable Web components -- is growing at a remarkable rate. This growth brings a lot of confusion as to how to select the right vendor and product for customers that are looking to customize their SharePoint environment.

The majority of the third-party SharePoint products on the market will fall into the following categories:

  • Web Parts (custom business solutions and applications)
  • Administrative tools
  • Integration tools
  • External SharePoint hosting solutions

The above categories are not mutually exclusive, and most of the vendors in this space are developing and bundling products that fall into multiple categories. To help customers make an educated decision about a third-party SharePoint product, assess what they already have in their environment and get a clear understanding of what their needs and requirements are.

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Web Parts, being reusable, greatly increase productivity. A substantial number of Web Parts come as part of the default SharePoint installation, but companies are looking for ways to improve and extend their SharePoint environment. There are many free custom Web Parts available for download, but these free resources are not supported by Microsoft or the authors of these add-ons.

Before bringing custom Web Parts and applications into your SharePoint environment, consider the following:

  • The core functionality of SharePoint might address the issues you are trying to resolve by acquiring third-party Web Parts.
  • Introducing Web Parts from many different vendors will create administrative overhead and potential compatibility issues.
  • In cases when a license is issued on a per-server basis, some third-party solutions and Web Parts might become quite expensive as your farm scales out.
  • Some vendors are packaging their products into bundles of Web Parts and business solutions that range from site templates to custom-developed applications. Bundled solutions often seem like more value for the money, but in reality, you might be getting less. Only utilization of features introduced as part of the bundled product will indicate the true value of the purchase.
  • Most of the third-party solutions are targeted toward end-user empowerment; providing adequate training on custom SharePoint applications and Web Parts functionality will guarantee that these applications are being used appropriately and functioning properly.
  • Your internal development team might be able to handle production of high-priority solutions.

In addition to providing enhancements to core SharePoint features, vendors are also offering a variety of maintenance and administrative tools that help with user management, security, auditing, backup, search and antivirus. Most enterprise backup vendors include SharePoint backup components in the latest versions of their backup solutions, but upgrading to the latest version might involve remodeling the existing backup strategy and thus become unreasonably costly. As an alternative there are multiple vendors providing SharePoint-specific backup solutions, but this will add to the maintenance and support overhead. Understanding all components involved will drive customers to the right vendor and the product that meets their needs.

Administrative tools allow power users to have more control over security and user management, consequently requiring more understanding of the actions they can perform and what effect they can produce. Ensuring that vendors can provide adequate training or training material will be the key to successful utilization of these tools.

SharePoint provides a flexible and extensible platform for Microsoft Office products and business-critical application integration. Many vendors will offer connectors to SharePoint as part of their application integration -- before searching for a third-party integration solution, contact the original vendor of the application you are trying to integrate with SharePoint to see if they already have integration options developed. This approach will help to avoid additional maintenance and support tasks for your infrastructure staff.

Finding a vendor with sufficient resources and a strong position in the software development field will mean continued support and further product enhancements.

About the author
Natalya Voskresenskaya, MCTS and MVP, is a SharePoint architect at Conchango, a consultancy and system integration company. She has been working in the IT field for 10 years. With experience in design, architecture, development and deployment of Web-based applications, Natalya has been developing and implementing portal solutions since 2000 and working with SharePoint since version 2003. For more information, check out Natalya's SharePoint blog.

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